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Freedom of SpeechIndia

India's internet shutdowns are like 'invisibility cloaks'

Nehal Johri
November 13, 2020

India shuts down the internet more than any other country. Kashmiris, in the north, had no internet access at all for almost a year. A DW analysis found that shutdowns are strategically used to clamp down on dissent.

Indien Internet Shutdown
Image: Avishek Das/ZUMA Wire/picture-alliance

Last year the Indian government cut off internet access in parts of the country 121 times. These shutdowns were frequently implemented under claims that they prevent the spread of misinformation and help maintain law and order. 

India's Supreme Court has ruled that indefinite shutdowns are unconstitutional. Yet the state of Kashmir in northernmost India continues to be in the midst of the longest shutdown in India's history, which completely blocked all access through March 3 and has continued to severely restrict access since March 4.

A DW analysis found that looking at the context in which shutdowns are imposed tells a rather different story: Most shutdowns occur during or after incidents of police brutality and violent protests, and they are used as a tool to stifle dissent.

Frequent shutdowns disrupt social and economic life

Sixty-four shutdowns have occurred so far throughout 2020 across India, according to SFLC.in, a legal services organization that records cases by monitoring news reports and talking to citizens. Typically, the relevant government does not make an announcement prior to a shutdown, nor does it inform citizens of when it will end.

Indeed, India — the world’s most populous democracy — shuts down the internet more often than any other country. Its 121 shutdowns in 2019 are followed far behind by those of Venezuela, classified as an authoritarian regime by Democracy Index, where the government shut down the internet 12 times last year.

Data visualization - Internet Shutdowns - comparison by country

Without the internet, residents of an affected area are left in an information vacuum, in which the press cannot function as usual and the public cannot confirm or deny claims made by the government. Moreover, such shutdowns paralyze daily life: People cannot access many necessities such as medical, educational and financial services.

Shutdowns also have a particularly adverse effect on women’s lives. In areas where women's presence in public spaces is already limited, having further lack of access to information is detrimental to their rights and freedoms. Arshie Qureshi, a writer and feminist activist from Kashmir, wrote in a personal account of an extended shutdown in Kashmir in 2016: "The only window to [the] outside world for many women happens to be social media. I, like many other women, would wait for some male member from the house to return and bring an update on what was happening outside."

Moreover, internet shutdowns come at a huge economic cost for the country as a whole. India lost an estimated $3 billion (€2.54 billion) between 2012 and 2017 due to shutdowns. Freelancers, small businesses, and the tourism industry were all especially hard hit.

When do authorities shut down the internet?

Indian government officials at local, state and national levels have often claimed that these shutdowns are required to maintain law and order and prevent spread of misinformation. But DW’s analysis of almost 400 shutdowns since 2012 shows that each shutdown is linked to more concrete underlying causes. 

Using SFLC's data, DW looked at news reports for each case, and identified the context in which the shutdown occurred. Incidents were classified by DW into nine categories, including "public violence," "protest," "religious conflict" and "misinformation." A shutdown could be tagged with one or multiple contexts.

The analysis showed that almost every second shutdown occurred against a backdrop of state violence. These included gunfights between militants and security forces in Kashmir, protests including those against India's controversial anti-Muslim "citizenship law" during which many young people were injured by police brutality, and deaths in police custody. 

Data visualization - Internet Shutdowns India - reasons for shutdowns

To Jan Rydzak*, a research analyst with Digital Ranking Rights, a non-profit research initiative promoting digital rights, who has extensively studied shutdowns in India, this is not surprising. "They can become a sort of invisibility cloak for state violence," he says. "There's just a lot of things that [can] fly under the radar when connectivity is disrupted."

Internet shutdowns 'an axe to do brain surgery'

DW’s analysis appears to support many experts’ conclusion that the Indian government uses shutdowns to respond to a wide variety of conflicts across the country, even when the contexts of the conflicts may be local or isolated in nature.

Access Now, a nonprofit defending digital rights globally, reports that shutdowns have illegally been ordered by local governments, including police officials and law enforcement agencies that do not have the power to order shutdowns.

In 2016, Gujarat became the first state to shut the internet to prevent cheating at an exam. The next year, a 17-year-old boy in Rajasthan wrote a Facebook post supporting Pakistan; the post quickly led to communal tensions and a shutdown followed.

In another prominent example, a few inmates of Srinagar Central Jail rebelled in April 2019 following an order to shift them within the facility to renovate barracks; a violent clash followed inside the prison. In response, the entire city's internet was cut off, as well as slowed down in the rest of South Kashmir, impacting more than 1 million people.

Rajan Mathews*, Director General of Cellular Operators Association of India tells DW that shutdowns are "a rather blunt instrument" to be deployed in problematic situations. "It's like using an axe to do brain surgery."

Under PM Modi, shutdowns have skyrocketed

Shutdowns are not new to the subcontinent. But since Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power, he has allowed for a legal framework that makes shutdowns easy to implement. 

By 2018, India had spiked at 134 shutdowns in a single year, an unprecedented record.

Data visualization - Internet Shutdowns India - development over time

The rules for how to shut the internet are laid out by Suspension Rules of 2017, which state that telecom services can be suspended temporarily in the interest of "public safety," a term that it does not define further. It also fails to clarify that shutdowns are a measure to be used only in emergencies.

Between the confusion created by the Suspension Rules and the ability of low-level regional officers to order shutdowns despite the legal ability to do so, governments at India's various levels have started to see shutdowns as a feasible tool to use in many situations. 

"It is unfortunate that we have not seen enough clarity or leadership in favour of an open internet," says Raman Jit Singh Chima, a lawyer and Asia Policy Director at Access Now. Yet this reality "is not in sync with what Prime Minister Modi has said elsewhere. He has stressed on the power of digital so often. But you cannot have digital India at the same time as India is leading the world in [the] number of internet shutdowns."

DW researched whether and to what degree shutdowns had increased since Modi took office. To that end, shutdowns in identical periods of time (during the 29 months before he took his oath as Prime Minister at the end of May 2014, and during the 29 months after) were analyzed. The time period was chosen based on earliest data available. 

The results show that under Modi, internet shutdowns became much more frequent. In the 29 months before Modi took office, the internet was shut down in one part of the country or another 12 times (under Congress-led UPA government). Within 29 months as Prime Minister, Modi had instated 42 shutdowns. The number has climbed up drastically ever since — and so have the reasons behind them. 

Data visualization - Internet Shutdowns India - before and after Modi

UN: Shutdowns a form of 'collective punishment'

Various UN human rights experts have said that internet shutdowns are a tool to deliver a sort of collective punishment to citizens. In August 2019, a UN working group said that "the blackout is a form of collective punishment of the people of Jammu and Kashmir, without even a pretext of a precipitating offense."

Researcher Rydzak also identifies shutdowns as a punishment — but as a highly untargeted one. For instance, during encounters between security forces and militants in Kashmir, the internet is cut to prevent the use of improvised explosive devices via the internet, and to reduce communication among militants. But it touches many more people than that by taking away the ability to communicate with friends and family over email, online forums and the most popular communication giant: WhatsApp.

"We actually know very little about how something like WhatsApp contributes to violence and how it contributes to disinformation. There's a lot of assumptions," says Rydzak. "There hasn't been a single study, as far as I know."

His research indicates that instead of helping maintain law and order, shutdowns actually increase violent protests. Without platforms like Facebook and WhatsApp to organize peaceful protests, people tend to turn to a spontaneous response: violence.

In some cases, officials who ordered the shutdown openly said that it was intended to prevent people from organizing. The government said that "anti-national" and "anti-social elements" were misusing the internet when student protests broke out against police violence in Kashmir in 2017.

Digital security advocate Chima finds that internet shutdowns implemented during protests against the government’s citizenship law "were a clear example of shutdowns being used to kill anti-government sentiments."

Government fails to fill gaps in Suspension Rules

India’s government is obliged to make public an alleged threat in the official order that leads to a shutdown. Yet it consistently defends such shutdowns as measures for public safety and does not publicly release information about the related threats, or their severity, nor justify the need to shut down access rather than utilize other measures.

"Those documents are 'privileged.' They cannot be brought into the public. So how do you challenge that there existed a threat to security of the state that warranted suspension of the internet?" says Siddharth Sijoria, a New Delhi-based lawyer specializing in comparative constitutions.

In August 2019, the Indian central government stripped the Kashmir region of its semi-autonomous status and imposed an internet shutdown there. After five months, the shutdown was still in effect, with no announced end date in sight. In January 2020, Anuradha Bhasin, editor of the English-language daily Kashmir Times, filed a petition against the central government, leading to a criminal case at the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court found the shutdown unconstitutional, and demanded that shutdown orders used in months prior be made public by the government. In March 2020, 213 days after the shutdown started, internet access was restored only in limited fashion and on certain devices. Internet access is now available only on mobile phones with verified SIM cards and via slow 2G bandwidth.

The Court also directed the central government of India to thoroughly review each shutdown in the future until Suspension Rules of 2017 are made more robust. In an official statement, judge N. V. Ramana wrote that "the existing Suspension Rules neither provide for a periodic review nor a time limitation for an order issued under the Suspension Rules."

These gaps are yet to be filled. And the rules themselves remain unquestioned.

"Kashmir is a draconian way of handling things in terms of infringing upon people's rights," says Mathews. "You may say the cost was not worth the benefit. But there was a benefit — the government says it saved lives and property. But at what cost? Those are hard questions to answer."

DW asked the Press Information Bureau of the Government of India for a comment, but did not receive a reply.


Update November 13, 2020: In parallel to the publication of this article, the Indian government amended the 2017 Suspension Rules, limiting the duration of an internet shutdown order: according to this amendment, it can only be valid for a maximum of 15 days.  

*Correction note, November 13, 2020: In the time between conducting the interview for this article and its publication, Rajan S. Mathews's employment situation changed. We decided to still cite him in the capacity he had been interviewed, but want to clarify nonetheless: he is no longer Director General at COAI.

Furthermore, a previous version of this article quoted Jan Rydzak with an affiliation to Stanford University's Global Digital Policy Incubator. However, at the time of the interview he worked for Digital Ranking Rights. We apologize for the error.